How to choose an apartment

Omkar, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I’m looking for an
apartment (Fremont), and it’s my first one. Do you think that most
people over or underinvest in the quality of their accommodations? On
one hand, it’s where you spend the most time (especially if you’re like
me and have in-house hobbies). On the other, I think it’s probably easy
to overestimate the impact an additional unit of luxury housing will
have on everyday life.

The standard results from the happiness literature are that people grow accustomed to lots of living space but that we undervalue the hassle of a lengthy or stressful commute.  Kahneman’s work also suggests you should spend more time with your friends, so maybe that means living near them as well.  I don’t know if these results are true at all margins.  Moving from a mid-sized mansion to a large mansion probably doesn’t make you happier, but the switch from a one- to two-bedroom apartment might.

Personally, I’ll stress the benefits of rooming with someone who is both compatible and intelligent, but that isn’t exactly the question that was asked.  Your apartment should also be a gateway to new experiences, so perhaps you should live near the highway. or other effective modes of transport.

So, readers, when we are looking for an apartment, what is the bias we are most likely to have?


Priorities for me would be:

1. Affordable.
2. Close to work & places I like to go (parks, shops, restaurants)

Try to live walking distance from places. You'll get out more.

Agree with the comments but from reoccurring personal experience. I have moved all of the country about once every 1.5 years for the last 9 years. One year when moving to San Diego about 6 years ago, where all apartments were about the same high expense, I created a database that weighed all aspects of an apartment (square feet, amenities, distance from work, quality of interior, rent, etc) based on the value the aspect had to me. Next I multiplied the weight by a quantitative representation for that aspect. I ended up choosing the one that ranked second :) When I was faced with the first ranking apartment, my gut decided that was not the right one for no obvious reason. I truly enjoyed the apartment I choose... well for the 11 months before moving to Minnesota.

When I returned to San Diego about one year later, I knew the area better and wanted to live in Little Italy. The strategy I took there was to walk the streets looking for "for rent" signs in the windows. This was tedious and frustrating at times but what I learned is that people that put signs in the window do not usually take the time to study the market or look at what other people are offering in the area. They also usually have very desirable locations that go quickly. They typically do not want to be bothered by administrative procedure. The result was the best apartment and landlords I have ever had and rent almost $1,000/mo less then the market would have allowed.

When I moved to the DC area last October, I took a different approach with the goal to go without a car. I learned quickly (having only 3 days to find a place) that the apartments near metro stops were on average about 300-400 more a month. Since I would have to buy a car if I lived away from the metro, there was really no cost savings. I stayed on-foot during my search which helped me get a feel for the area. Have a great apartment right off the metro at a discount rate (Hint: new construction always have discounts for the "inconvenience") and do not own a car. May actually get to stay here for three years :)

Good luck!

Men do (and should) look at an apartment in terms of how it will impress a new girl. Will she WANT to stay over here, in terms of comfort and location?

If you're generally not home during the day, is there an office that can accept your packages? If renting from a company rather than an individual, google it and see if there are horror stories. Proximity to a grocery store and decent places to eat (preferably a couple on foot) is important unless you plan your meals carefully.

The floorplan is more important than you think relative to sq ft. Perhaps unlike an extra room, you will contiune to regret renting an apartment that doesn't have the following: clean/well-lit common areas, decent carpet, a kitchen you'd want to use, central air/heat rather than a wall unit, thick walls, and paint that's not flaking.

A number of studies point to the high/hidden cost of commuting (click on my name for a post with a couple links). As noted by several commenters, look for places that are close to work and where you can walk to dinners, friends' houses, etc.

For years and years I chose my apartments and later my condo because of its proximity to my favorite bar and night clubs. I could walk to all. I felt like this was worthwhile because at that time in my life I drank quite a bit and this prevented me from getting into trouble for drunken driving.

I just moved into my first apartment last year.

I took the advice of the happiness researchers and moved into a clean, safe, affordable but tiny apartment close to friends and other fun stuff.

I can't stand it. Maybe I'm just use to a larger living space. I'm about to bolt for the suburbs for a complex with a pool,central air, etc....

I don't like commuting, my current 30 minute drive is the maximum I could handle, but I still prefer to live closer to places/things I enjoy than work. My reasoning is that I will go to work, but if driving to a restaurant or friends house seems like too much of a hassle I'll probably stay home.

Air conditioning, definitely, and, north of Florida, a parking garage. If I had to go out and scrape snow off of my windows before driving to work in the morning, I'd probably call in sick a lot during the winter.

* Location.
* Relatively quiet, especially in terms of traffic noise.
* Offers somewhere secure, covered, and convenient to store a bike.
* Well laid out, particularly in terms of offering a good space for parties, as well as space for a few guests to stay over.
* Large enough that two people could conceivably live there indefinitely, without driving one another crazy.
* Good water pressure.
* Ideally, well insulated and otherwise energy efficient.
* Hardwood floors and laundry gear are an advantage.

That it's in Rome. For academic year 2008-09.

Anyone got a lead?

I think this one has been solved for us by those with the best incentives to figure out the question (real-estate agents): "Location. Location. Location."

We tend to put too much emphasis on living near people like us and don't branch out enough. Fremont, CA? Try to be close enough to BART to make that easy, but live further from the Yuppies and closer to people who aren't very like you. People who don't read economics blogs.

I'm sure that having a dog door and a fenced back yard for the dogs so you don't have to worry about them "holding it" all day is a big improvement in happiness!

That said, I'm amazed how much time & treasure you spend cleaning a big house compared to a small apartment. It isn't worth it to me!

I second Ms. Magnus' comment on management. I've noticed that my gut reaction on viewing the apartment and meeting the manager gives me a good idea of how trustworthy and responsive the office will be. This makes a big difference.

for those of you who have had apartments with and without dishwashers, you'll probably all agree that it is one luxury worth paying a little extra for. as far as the other amenities go, take 'em or leave 'em.

one criterion should be safety. If your deciding between two apartments in Fremont, looking at crime data might be helpful in making a decision. Spotcrime just recently added Fremont as a city.

I chose the place I'm living in now because it was located close to several bus routes and had stores (and a library) within short walking distances and very cheap ($400/mo). At the time I moved, I was jobless (and looking) and expected that I'd be needing public transportation because the car'd get repoed. The place is cheap. The carless situation ended up happening, and I was able to commute to work via bus for more than a year.

The security situation here has deteriorated significantly in the last year (I've been here 4 years). If that doesn't change, then I'll be looking for a new place.

On one hand, it's where you spend the most time (especially if you're like me and have in-house hobbies)
I'm a software developer, so I ended up moving to a 2br apt, in the same building becaues I found that I was unable to do work at home without getting distracted to the point where I couldn't get stuff done. Oh look, I'm browsing on the internet, see how well that plan turned out?

On the other, I think it's probably easy to overestimate the impact an additional unit of luxury housing will have on everyday life.
When I was younger, I spent too much on "luxury" apartments. I see the younger guys at the office doing the same.

Do you think that most people over or underinvest in the quality of their accommodations?
It is an apartment. If these are the only 2 choices, then "underinvest." A living space is a tool to keep you dry, warm and safe along with your stuff.

- quiet (street and building)
- safe neighbourhood
- close to public transport (if you must drive, a commute of less than 60 minutes)
- air con that works (in most climates)
- friends within reasonable distance (say 45 mins or so, or both 45 mins to 'downtown')

Older buildings but with 'luxury' features in their day, are often full of older couples and singles who make less noise and are generally less hassle.

New developments are potentially quite dangerous: you get transients, and noisy young people (even when I was one, I found their all night parties tiresome).

Someone once advised me to 'overpay' for accomodation in London, and this has always turned out to be good advice: it basically boils down to living in too small a place, in a very convenient (but quiet and safe) location. Maybe this is a major financial centre thing?

Last year I lived in Edinburgh's old town, right in the middle of everything. It was nice being able to walk places, but I never really felt part of a neighbourhood - my immediate area was mostly hostels, clubs and big public buildings. The noise was awful. There were a lot of brawls outside my window at night. Tourists urinated in our driveway.

Now that I'm back in Toronto, I live about a 20 minutes on transit or bike from campus. It's not nearly suburban, but well outside the student bubble. The commute hasn't bothered me a bit - I've enjoyed living in a real neighbourhood with green space, peace and quiet, neighbours I can say hello to, and a concrete postage stamp backyard.

Look for the happy medium.

When living in an area with a lot of foot traffic, I've found it important that the complex have locked gates. I once lived in a small complex that was fairly easy to walk through, and the result was a lot of strange people walking through the complex. A locked gate keeps most of the casual walkthroughs away (however if someone is motivated they're getting in) and helps stop crimes of opportunity. We had quite a few petty thefts at that complex (no breakins though) I think mainly due to people walking through.

BTW, priorities will change with time. 5 years ago, I specifically looked to share an apartment with roommates, and that was the right decision. I enjoyed the social aspect. But if I were to look for a place today, I'd get my own. I really need my a place to myself for a few months just for sanity's sake.

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